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I was sitting with my mom a couple of hours ago. She was reading aloud birthday wishes she had received to me. Some of the wishes were in FusHa (Modern Standard Arabic), and some were in Egyptian Arabic. What I found interesting was that my mom, a lover of FusHa, said that she liked the ones written in EA a lot more because they sounded, according to her, more genuine.

I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that, for example, in English, both what I read and what I hear are one and the same language. Of course, in written English, you often see a wider variety of vocabulary and styles. But the language itself–the pronouns, sentence structure, pronunciation, etc., are the same!

The Barriers of Diglossia in the Arabic-Speaking World

I’ve always wondered why this is not the case in Arabic. Why do I have to translate my thoughts before writing them out for some reader who, chances are, speaks the same language I speak (Egyptian Arabic), or at least understands it? Doesn’t this put barriers between the message and receiver? I think it does, especially for those who happen not to have learned FusHa well enough. The problem is that these people make up the majority.

Classical Arabic Literature vs. the Average Arab Today

You would certainly enjoy reading Classical Arabic literature, such as poetry written 1,500 years ago, but only if you had at least a decent command of Classical Arabic. If you understand basic FusHa, like most educated people, you will understand books written in simple FusHa. But if you only know Modern Standard Arabic, the level of literature you can enjoy (or that a contemporary author can write) won’t be great. The greatest works of literature aren’t written in simple language, after all.

All of this tells us that we are facing a serious problem. The majority of native speakers of Arabic cannot enjoy or appreciate Classical Arabic literature.

Two Solutions

There are two solutions to our problem. One, educate the masses better so that the average person has true proficiency in FusHa and can understand and enjoy high-level literature. Or two, get rid of the belief that literature cannot be written in a “colloquial dialect” such as Masri (Egyptian Arabic).

I wish we could apply the first solution, but I just don’t think it is realistic. Investing time, effort, and money into learning FusHa is not really something that will help you get a better-paying job. Learning English, on the other hand, will.  So yes, ideally, we (Arabs) should all invest in learning FusHa. Perhaps in a perfect world, we would just speak FusHa. But it doesn’t seem like this will happen anytime soon.

The second solution, however, is much more attainable. All it takes is a change of mindset–to accept Egyptian Arabic as a valid written language for literature, books, and media. And I’m happy to say that this has already begun to happen.

The Advent of Publications in Egyptian Arabic

The nicest book I’ve read so far this year (بعد ما يناموا العيال)was written by my favorite Egyptian writer (Omar Taher). He writes in a combination of simple, decent FusHa and Egyptian Arabic. 

I also read a couple of books on psychology and sociology in Egyptian Arabic this year. It’s an interesting development that experts on such serious, academic matters would choose to write in Egyptian Arabic, no doubt to reach the masses. One of these books is even a national best-seller, by the way, which shows us that people’s mindsets are, in fact, starting to change.

The News in Egyptian Arabic

Earlier this year, I co-authored the Lingualism publication “The News in Egyptian Arabic,” which consists of news articles written in Egyptian Arabic. My co-author of the book, Matthew Aldrich, thought the book would help learners of Egyptian Arabic learn the language that we, Egyptians, use when discussing the news and serious topics–even though news articles are normally written in FusHa. And although I’ve long believed that Egyptian Arabic and FusHa (MSA) are not actually a single language and that Egyptian Arabic is not just colloquial “slang” suited only for speaking, I was hesitant to pursue the book project at first because news articles in Egyptian Arabic are something I’ve never seen before. But now, after reading more books this year in Egyptian Arabic, I feel increasingly confident that presenting news articles in Egyptian Arabic is valid and acceptable, and if someone criticizes this, I can point to this trend and confirm its legitimacy.

4 Comments

  1. As an Egyptian Arabic learner I’m really happy to find your homepage. There are so many wonderful books available here. One of my favourite is the news book of Ahmad, which I finished several weeks ago. I remember the first article I read was about the Corona burger 🍔 made in Vietnam. A really interesting and also a bit funny article. The audios of the book are amazing. The articles are read in a nice speed, which is really helpful and motivating for learner as me. Actually I never expected to be able to understand the news articles so well. Also love the small exercises and the discussion questions. I learned many useful vocabularies and enjoyed the short stories very much.
    Thanks for the wonderful work and I am looking forward to the change of mindset in the Arabic learning world.

  2. I really appreciate your work, Ahmad. I also follow your YouTube channel, but some things about all these efforts in the Arab world to use the local dialects is a bit confusing for the foreigners and the language learners. On one hand, we study MSA (so that we should be able to understand the media and the official speeches or writings) and on the other, we learn a dialect to be able to communicate with the people. So far, so good. Somehow, we can accept this duality of the language.

    But if every Arab country starts writing and using only its dialect, this will mean the death of the Arabic language. Generations in the future will only be able to use their own dialect, which will be standardized as a national language. In the Arab league conferences there will be a similar funny situation as the one with the EU institutions where a lot of money is paid by taxpayers for live interpretation and translations from more than 20 languages, just because no Arab speaks Arabic. But actually this could be a problem for the native speakers.

    What about the people like me who are studying the language? Which language should I study, to be able to communicate and also to understand some media?

    I’ve been learning Levantine Arabic for 1 year now. Actually, it looks as it will serve only to buy shawarma from the Syrian takeaway across the street, if every Arab nation starts using only its own dialect.

    Your book about the News in EA may be very useful, but what about if we want to watch Al-Arabya or Al-Jazeera? Everything there is in MSA. Even the Egyptian news channels use mostly MSA.

    I’m not sure if I could describe the issue properly or if a native speaker can understand the mess in which the learners fall when learning Arabic. Finally, people may decide, it would be better to learn some Western language, than wasting time to fight with countless dialects.

  3. Hi, Lyubo!

    Thanks so much for this great comment. I enjoyed reading it and laughed so hard about the shwarma part. Lol.

    Here are some opinions:
    The Arab World uses MSA, not Classical Arabic, as the official written language. So if this is the only thing that helps MSA survive, it means the death of Classical Arabic. But I think Classical Arabic (which, in my opinion, is the reason why MSA itself exists) has survived because of the Quran. As long as religious Muslims survive, Classical Arabic will survive. That’s because it is an essential part of the Quran, which according to Muslims’ beliefs, cannot be translated, only interpreted in other languages. That’s probably why we have diglossia in the first place.

    Now, I’m not saying that MSA is bad. It is great. I also understand the challenges that will arise if Spoken Arabic has been standardized, such as the ones you drew my attention to above. I totally agree. But I think these will just be better problems that we will need to deal with. Problems will always exist. But avoiding to standardize Spoken Arabic just to avoid those challenges, is probably going to just keep things getting worse for Arabic like, in my opinion, the level of education, for instance. And when the level of education goes down, the IQ level of the population goes. And this, according to studies*, would cost the countries a lot of money. Probably a lot more than what they will have to pay to cover interpretation fees (in case we would really need interpreters, and in case MSA will really die).

    Nevertheless, I’ve been entertaining the idea that Egyptian Arabic could actually be a dialect of Spoken Arabic. I certainly need a lot of research and studying other varieties of Spoken Arabic and linguistics before reaching a satisfying conclusion. But I’ve been noticing that Levantine Arabic, Egyptian Arabic, Gulf Arabic, and others, have so much in common that could probably make us say that Spoken Arabic is a language that has lots of dialects.

    And in my opinion, standardizing Spoken Arabic is most important for Arabs themselves. As for learners, though, I think having to deal with many challenges just makes Arabic more cool and beautiful, as I read somewhere.

    * You can refer to a study conducted by Joel Schwartz: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/g-problem-space

    Cheers!
    Ahmad

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